Phantasmaburbia Ain’t Afraid of Suburban Ghosts
Some of the best art transports you, maybe to a different place, maybe a different time. My favorite games are gateways that draw me into worlds I’ve never known, or worlds I’ve forgotten. When I play Final Fantasy VI I am drawn into the world of my suburban youth, sprawling lanes of houses, the park two blocks down the road from my parent’s house, and their old, small television, tucked away into a fake wooden cabinet.
None of that’s the game’s fault—all art is a product of when you experience it. These memories come not from the game and its elements but instead from the world it was trapped in.
Phantasmaburbia, a Halloween-released horror-comedy RPG, builds its own world out of these memories. For those of us who grew up with Final Fantasy VI and Earthbound it’s a nostalgia factory. For others it continues the trend of the maturing, classic JRPG, following in the footsteps of handheld titles like Radiant Historia and Devil Survivor as examples of how classic design principles can be modernized.
A small caveat: I will strive for objectivity, but this is the sort of game that feels made just for me. It’s like a well-sized new suit. I love JRPGs, I love Earthbound, I love ghost stories, and I love meaningful choices. I grew up in Philadelphia—where Phantasmaburbia is heavily implied to be set—and I feel like I have the same preferences in games as the author. Phantasmaburbia is in a lot of ways a perfect storm of what I like in video games.
That said, I’m pretty confident it can appeal to anyone not off-put by the very core concept of a console-style RPG. Phantasmaburbia tells the story of four small-suburb teens, each misfits in their own rights, combating a phantasmal menace.
The game speaks directly to you, assuming you are a nostalgic 90′s misfit who grew up media obsessed. Phantasmaburbia takes classic tropes and runs with them; more than that, it modernizes them. Take the tradition Final Fantasy “Find all the crystals” trope. Phantasmaburbia gives you that: the game revolves around collecting spirits from the corners of your town of Owl Creek. But it subverts that, too: each crystal has a practical use (instead of being obvious macguffins) and you can’t get all of them. You’ll make choices, and you won’t even know you’re making them until their consequences are revealed.
Battles, too, take the idea of Final Fantasy’s Active Time Battle and run with it. The game plays fast, almost frantic, demanding quick tactical decisions building out of whatever plan you began with. Before battle you assign your various characters four moves each, which allows you to specialize them: do you want to focus more on the (surprisingly effective) status effects, or on doing damage up front? How are you going to heal, especially with items in short supply for much of the game? You’re given opportunity to make a plan, and then have to execute it with haste and precision.
And Phantasmaburbia gets challenging. It demands you wrap your head around all its mechanics, all its hecticness, by the end. It’s a game heavy on mechanical choices, on you using both foresight and preparation. It’s probably as close as this combat style can get to resembling American football: you plan for a minute, then there’s maybe fifteen seconds of explosiveness before you do it all again.
The narrative similarly has you preparing, repeating, restarting: the game centers on a quest to collect spirits before a Big Bad can do the same, and it’s well-executed. Phantasmaburbia blends together elements of horror, comedy, and the school story (think Stand By Me) into a story most reminiscent of Earthbound but bearing its own hallmarks.
It’s rarely too lengthy, though: most of the story is told through interacting with incidental objects and the occasional short conversations. For the most part, the story works well, but Phantasmaburbia doesn’t let a lot of its key moments breathe. Most difficult was that the character closest to the plot never got much more weight to his narrative-centric story beats than the others did. It left me a little lost and confused, especially when Phantasmaburbia plays its final cards.
But Phantasmaburbia isn’t a game about a story, or even its mechanics: it’s a game about a place. It’s a game about a time; it’s the video game equivalent of those classic childhood movies. It’s packaged nostalgia, supplemented by a clever game that takes and modernizes the tropes we’ve come to expect from the humble RPG.
That said, if you’ve never played an RPG—and if you never grew up in the soul-crushing conformity of modern suburbs—Phantasmaburbia becomes a much harder sell. It’s a lovely game, a clever game, but can I quantify how much of my enjoyment of the title came from the setting, the time, the clever updates on ten year old me’s games and how much of it came from how the actual game is? I couldn’t tell you. Phantasmaburbia’s the kind of game that’s going to speak to you, or it’s not. If it does, like it does to me, then it’s an absolute delight, a game I can’t wait to play again. If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t. It won’t get simpler than that.